We walked (and sometimes traveled in vans) from Scranton, PA, President Joe Biden’s birthplace, to Wilmington, DE, the city he’s called home for decades, in the state he represented in the U.S. Senate for six terms. Delaware is known as The First State, but it’s also known as the Corporate State, where big businesses like Dupont and JP Morgan Chase Bank make the rules, and where Biden has backed that system in Congress.
We were a band of about 20 elders on the through walk, joined on different days by many other folks of all ages for our public rallies. The weather varied from the 90s and humid to soaking downpours to some perfect summer days. We walked along city streets clogged with garbage trucks and along the Delaware Canal, adjacent to the beautiful Delaware River, with trees shading us and lots and lots of milkweed for the monarchs along the path.
One of the most sobering parts of the walk was meeting local people in Chester, PA – a low-income, mostly African American town – that is home to a 30-year-old “trash to energy plant” (what the industry calls it) that is in reality an incinerator, burning garbage from places as close as Philadelphia and as far away as Puerto Rico. You can hear my brief interview with the leader of the local group here.
We also spent some time at a summer camp for children in a low-income African American neighborhood in Philadelphia, which had been the site of the largest oil refinery east of the Mississippi.
Some of the walkers are old friends, a few going back almost 50 years. Others were new acquaintances from up and down the Eastern seaboard, and what treasures they all were! One of the great things about these walks-with-a-purpose is that you get to have wonderful, revelatory, one-on-one conversations as you count out the miles. Someone I didn’t get to walk with, because he was always driving his car, pulling the porta-potty, was Maury, who was our go-to guy for everything we needed. It became a running joke, that he was like our fairy godfather. One of the best things he came up with was five rocking chairs, when we decided that our final action of the walk would be sitting in at the Chase Bank credit card headquarters in Wilmington – elders in rockers, get it? Maury is from southern West Virginia, a region near and dear to my heart because of all my trips there to report on mountaintop removal coal mining. Now the biggest threat is from gas fracking and pipelines to transport the gas. He is a fierce opponent of the Mountain Valley pipeline, and took every opportunity to use social media with us holding signs and banners against the MVP, to spread the word.
Our routemeister Mike did an amazing job of figuring out where we would walk, where we'd travel by vans, where we'd sleep and where we'd stop along the way to meet some of the most dedicated people trying to save their communities from the ravages of industrial late-stage capitalism. There was a bit of a contradiction inherent in the Walk, since we were outsiders coming to support local struggles and they were people totally grounded in their local fights. But they all appreciated us coming to learn and we promised to spread the word about their struggles.
Another great new friend is Karen, a Wilmington resident, small business owner and local point person for the action. She is not an elder, but enthusiastically joined us in the planning and the action. She got us another five rocking chairs, so that by Monday morning, June 28, ten elders were able to completely block the entrance to the bank headquarters. My oldest friend, Steve (the initiator of the Walk), and a new friend, John – with the help of Karen’s 6-foot ladder – climbed up to the huge eagle perched, wings outstretched, in front of the building (see photo), and displayed a very large banner.
One day Ted came up with our themesong: Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” We amended it to “Rockin’ in the fossil-free world” and one of my favorite memories is of Ted, 71, jitterbugging to the song with his wife, Jane, who is 80. Who said elder climate activists don’t know how to have fun?!
We had amazing support and hospitality along the way, from Rabbi Daniel who welcomed us to his synagogue in Scranton with a beautiful multi-faith service, and gifted us an amazing amount of ice cream from the local dairy for a dinner treat, then gave us the run of the building for sleeping (allowing me to snag my own private room). Two women – Nancy in Easton, PA, and Dee outside of Wilmington – provided beautiful indoor and outdoor spaces, and both had swimming pools – hurrah!
Chase is by far the biggest investor in fossil fuel extraction of any U.S. bank (and in many cases it is the global leader), according to the 2020 Banking on Climate Change report, so that’s why Chase was our target. The Wilmington police refused to arrest us (no doubt following the wishes of Chase, for whom the arrest of a dozen elders on their doorstep for its climate crimes would not have been good publicity), so eventually we took our rocking chairs into the street and blocked an intersection. The police kept one turning lane open, so motorists could actually get where they needed to go, but it slowed them down. We refused to leave, so finally they arrested us.
We spent a couple of hours in jail. My cellmate, Padma, a beautiful soul and retired nurse, and I had some good conversation about our own lives and the state of our country and world. The steel bunk bed had no mattresses, so we enjoyed reading some of the things former inmates had scratched into the metal. The two biggest were “ACT UP” and “Stop AIDS,” but we also found “hope” and “om” with a smiley face in the o. Also “Dupont = greed.” Dupont is one of the largest corporations based in Delaware, and its family members have had inordinate influence over the state. We clearly weren’t the only political activists held in that little cell!
We were charged with disorderly conduct and have our next court appearances in August. We have a wonderful pro bono attorney, who we hope will be able to consolidate our cases. If we have to appear in person (instead of Zoom), it will be a great reunion!